HORNE, LENA (Lena Mary Calhoun Horne) (1917– ) Singer, Actress
Since the 1930s, Lena Horne has been charming audiences with her silky voice. She was born Lena Mary Calhoun Horne in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, New York, on June 17, 1917. After her parents separated when she was three, her mother, an aspiring actress, left Lena in the care of Lena’ s maternal grandparents, both of whom were active in civil rights. When Lena was two, her grandmother enrolled her in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In about 1924, Lena joined her mother, who was a touring performer in African-American tent shows. Traveling through the South, she felt firsthand the indignities suffered by African Americans in a segregated society. The experience also piqued her interest in show business.
By the onset of the Great Depression, Horne was living with her mother and new stepfather in the Bronx. Needing to help support her family, she left school at 16 to work as a chorus girl at the Cotton Club, a famed nightclub in Harlem that presented shows starring African-American talent for a wealthy white clientele. In addition to Horne’s beautiful face and shapely figure, she was hire because her light skin and Caucasian-looking features were appealing to whites. Horne spent some of her paycheck on music lessons, a decision that paid off when she won a small role in the Broadway musical Dance With Your Gods (1935). The same year, she was hired as a singer for Noble Sissle’s Society Orchestra. In 1937, she left the entertainment business to marry Louis Jones, a family friend. Horne and Jones settled in Pittsburgh and had two children, Gail and Teddy, before they separated in 1940.
Returning to New York, Horne started singing with the Charlie Barnet Orchestra, with whom she made her first recordings. By 1941, she was a regular performer at Cafe Society Downtown, a nightspot in Greenwich Village that drew a mixedrace audience. There, she met many of the prominent African-American New Yorkers of her day. For a time, Horne dated boxer Joe Louis. She also developed friendships with actor Paul Robeson and singer BILLIE HOLIDAY. Perhaps even more important to her career was meeting Walter White, the head of the NAACP. He encouraged her to try to break down racial barriers in films. At the time, few African-American actresses were ever cast as anything but maids.
In 1942, Horne went to Los Angeles for a nightclub job. While there, she landed a seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), becoming the first African American to sign with a major movie studio since 1915. She demanded a clause in her contract stipulating that she would not be required to play any stereotyped roles. Horne had her most substantial film part in Cabin in the Sky (1943), playing the temptress Georgia Brown in this all-African-American musical. Otherwise, MGM was not quite sure what to do with Horne. Racial taboos kept her from becoming a romantic lead; since Horne was African American, the studio refused to pair her with a white man. Instead, in most of Horne’s films, she was seen only in musical numbers, inevitably dressed in a tasteful evening gown. In Stormy Weather (1943), for instance, she sang the title song, which became her signature tune. Keeping Horne’s film appearances restricted to short scenes also allowed MGM to cut her out of prints shown in the South, where moviegoers were more apt to object to seeing an African American on screen. During World War II, Horne became the favorite pinup girl of African-American soldiers. She was also a popular entertainer in USO tours, though she would not perform if African Americans were denied admittance to her show. At the beginning of one performance, she walked offstage when she realized that African-American troops had been seated behind German prisoners of war. The USO pulled her from its tours, so Horne began entertaining troops on tours she financed herself. After the war, Horne married white conductorarranger Lennie Hayton in Paris in 1947. They kept their relationships secret until the press exposed it in 1950. As a result, Horne received numerous death threats. She also became a target of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist witchhunts during the 1950s.
Nevertheless, Horne remained a star, particularly as a nightclub performer and recording artist. Her album Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria became the top-selling recording by a female artist ever produced by RCA Records. Horne also performed frequently on television, on such programs as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. In the 1960s, she also made regular appearances in marches and rallies for civil rights, including the March on Washington in 1963.
Horne separated from Hayton, though they remained close friends. She found the love of her life, however, in Billy Strayhorn, a famed arranger composer who died in 1967. The years ahead would bring more sorrow to Horne. During an 18 month period in 1970–71, she saw the deaths of her father, her son Teddy, and Hayton. Through the early 1970s, Horne stayed out of the public eye as she recovered from her grief. In 1974, Horne was lured back to Broadway, where she costarred with Tony Bennett in the show Tony and Lena. She also appeared as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz, the film version of an allblack Broadway musical based on The Wizard of Oz. The unsuccessful movie was directed by her son-in-law, Sidney Lumet. Horne went on what she considered her farewell concert tour in 1980, but ironically one of her greatest professional triumphs was yet to come. In 1981, she starred in Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. Her still powerful voice, combined with her personal warmth and sense of humor, made it the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history. Calling the show “the best thing that ever happened to me,” Horne won a special Tony for her performance and a Grammy for the album recorded from it.
After more than 10 years, Horne returned to the recording studio in the 1990s. In addition to An Evening with Lena Horne: Live at the Supper Club (1995), she made two well-received studio albums, We’ll Be Together Again (1994) and Being Myself (1998). In a culmination of seven decades in the entertainment industry, she gave an acclaimed performance at the 1997 JVC Jazz Festival to celebrate her 80th birthday.
Buckley, Gail Lumet. The Hornes: An American Family. New York: Knopf, 1986.
Haskins, James, with Kathleen Benson. Lena: A Biography of Lena Horne. Chelsea, Mich.: Scarborough House, 1991.
Horne, Lena, with Richard Schickel. Lena. New York: Doubleday, 1965.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Cabin in the Sky (1999). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1943.
Stormy Weather (1991). Twentieth Century-Fox, VHS, 1943.
The Wiz (1978). Universal, DVD/VHS, 1999/1998.